William Langewiesche is one of the best non-fiction writers in the world. Every piece he writes is deeply reported, exquisitely crafted and incredibly compelling, this one being no exception (the opening alone should win a prize). His latest piece for Vanity Fair is about the Camorra, the mafia of Naples. You should really put aside some time and read the whole thing; here I'll just focus on one aspect of it.
The piece centres around the extraordinary figure of Paolo Di Lauro, whose mugshot is above. Di Lauro, now in a maximum security prison, was one of the greatest Camorristi of all time, ruthless and amoral but also intelligent and self-disciplined. When he ruled the roost, Naples was relatively peaceful and well-ordered. Now that he has been put away, the town - or at least those parts of it where the Camorra holds sway - has become more blighted by murders and petty crimes than ever before. The police force has never succeeded in asserting a "monopoly of violence" in Naples, and in the absence of a strong Camorra, order has suffered. Langewiesche hints at a provocative conclusion:
It’s hardly the system you would dream up in a civics class. Nonetheless the Camorra serves society best when it is strong. The judges I spoke to all recognized this truth, and yet these were the same people who had taken Di Lauro down. I asked them if they believed in the superiority of the Italian state, and all but one replied no. That one said, to paraphrase, “We have no choice. The Camorra has created an anti-state whose very existence threatens the legitimacy of the Italian state. If the courts did not act, they would not be real. If the courts are not real, Italy will not endure. Our role is not to prevail over the Camorra but to go through the motions of trying.” I mentioned this to a Camorra defense lawyer. She knew the judge in question. She said, “The anti-state is the state itself. It is the state, not the Camorra, that is strangling Italy.”
This is interesting enough in itself, and I don't want to imply a false equivalence between real violence and economic disorder, but when I read this paragraph I couldn't help being reminded of the debates we're currently having over how to tax the super-rich.